Command Performances

Professor William McNeill, of the University of Chicago, is a prodigy among living historians. Two world histories crown his achievements, one so called and the other bearing a title that implies a confidence in our civilization rare among intellectuals today.* The same confidence sustains him in his treatment of smaller and less universal subjects—though almost any subject acquires, at Professor McNeill’s hands, a largeness and sweep more timid men would shrink from giving it. His history of Venice is subtitled “Hinge of Europe,” his regional survey of the borderlands where Ottoman, Romanov, and Hapsburg empires met is called Europe’s Steppe Frontier, while his examination of the function of disease as an advance guard of population movements in history is called Plagues and Peoples. And heavy though the conclusions are that he lays upon these specialist studies, the skill with which he treats them lends him a charmed life in the barbed and acerbic world of professional historiography. Oxford University, a Mrs. Grundy in its attitude toward historians of wide horizons, elected him George Eastman Visiting Professor in 1980, and he retired from his own great university as professor emeritus with many honors.

In view of Professor McNeill’s interest in the mechanisms of large historical changes, it was perhaps inevitable that he should at some time have turned his interest to military affairs, as he has now done. It is a neglected subject, at least in our own time. The neglect derives, in all probability, both from its obviousness and from the degree to which it was over-worked in times gone by. “Kings and battles” is professional shorthand for a sort of history writing and history teaching that has killed for good generations of schoolchildren’s interest in the past. The phrase also proclaims an intellectual and corporate attitude that says that the world changes for much more complex reasons than victories or royal successions provide. Such events are dismissed as événementiels—having to do, that is, with the superficiality of things and not with that grinding of the tectonic plates of history which allegedly shift the human continents about time’s surface.

Or so the fast men on the inside track of scholarship have been insisting these last two hundred years. First it was soil and climate, then the ownership of the means of production, then biological determinants, finally the buried and forgotten power of myth that was held to lie behind and beneath the structure of human society. Almost any explanation, it seemed, of the formation and alteration of those structures was preferable to one that depended on man’s visible, conscious, and violent struggle for change. Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, one of the greatest Victorian best sellers, might be taken to stand as the all-purpose target for Marxists, social Darwinians, Freudians, and structuralists who, disagreeing about almost everything else, could all join cheerfully in contempt of the notion that the warrior—his tools, techniques, and social relationships—was worth five minutes of a serious historian’s time.

Not even two…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.